Grief and Spiral Staircases

Grief is an interesting beast. It comes to us like an animal who will take treats from people but is never tame. We can describe it, break it down, psychoanalyze it and study it. We think we understand it and in our understanding we think we have tamed it. We experience it and think we have mastered it.

Then it comes in the middle of the night. Sometimes it comes with soft breath to stir our dreams and leave us disoriented. Other times it comes with flashing claws to reopen the wounds in our hearts leaving us breathless and sleepless.

Grief is famously described in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model as having 5 stages. Too many people think of these stages as a linear progression, even though she never presented it as such. There are many models in use now that describe grief but I find my own visualization of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model helpful in my own journey with grief of all types.

Personalizing models of behavior and cognition can make them more powerful tools for personal grown because all models have limitations and none are universal. Too often models are taken to be a literal, universal truth when in fact they are representations. Like labels, they are a place to start a conversation, not the end of it.

The most profound grief I have dealt with, and continue to deal with, is the death of my mother from a brain tumor in 2004. It is in this journey that I have learned the most about my relationship with grief.

The Kübler-Ross model: you will deny, be angry, bargain, feel depression and gain acceptance. I see it as a spiral staircase leading up and away into the future. Traveling on the staircase I can look at the event in the center, in this case the death of my mother. As I move through time the view changes and grows more distant. I see how as I travel the spiral, I seem to cover the same ground again and again, but I am always moving up and away from that first, crushing grief.

Different steps of the spiral staircase contain different stages. Today I am accepting, but tomorrow I may take a few steps higher, gaining distance in time from when my mother died, and find myself once again angry that my mother is gone. It is a different anger then when she first passed away, or the last time I was angry, but it is anger and I have to feel it, sit with it and let it pass through my heart so I can pass through it again.

The spiral staircase image reminds me I am moving, not stuck. I know with some grief journeys I’ll pass through stages many times. Knowing this means I am not surprised, scared or worried that something is wrong with me. I know the stages will come and with each turn of the spiral I gain more experience with my grief. I know I will come through that stage, I will not get stuck and eventually I will find my way back back to the relative peace I have in acceptance. I will find that space where my heart does not hurt.

On my journey with my mother’s death my denial has now been relegated to my dreams where my mother makes regular appearances. Awake, I am still angry sometimes, but it is a dull echo of the fiery anger I once had.

My mother’s choices regarding her illness and death derailed any bargaining I might have considered. When the subject of your potential bargain has accepted her own rapidly approaching death with grace and peace, it is hard to figure out what that bargain might be. Don’t mistake this for not wanting more time with her! But making deals with higher powers, the universe in general or the possibilities of experimental therapies felt disrespectful of her wishes about her own body and her life.

I certainly spent plenty of time in depression; both the grey fog and the deep darkness. Finally, from time to time, I do find acceptance. My acceptance is sometimes a sad place but it is peaceful and I can miss my mother without feeling my heart break.

When my mother passed away my oldest son was a little over three years old. We talked with the funeral director about kids and grief. One of the things he told us was to expect our son’s grief to come back around at different times as our son grew older. I had already thought about holidays but he said it is more than that.

He explained it might come up because of a conversation in school about family trees or a friend talking about a visiting grandparent. It might be years later and still be very fresh. Where I continue up my spiral staircase, he may find himself on new staircases as he gets older, starting at the bottom again, very close to the event. He may experience the loss of his grandmother as a fresh event because it is being seen with newly developed awareness as he grows older.

I’ve gone through this “reset” once already with him when he was in early elementary school. His younger brother had gotten old enough to ask about his grandmother and what happened to her. Discussing her illness and death in front of my older son re-started his grieving and there were tears and discussions of “why did this have to happen.”

You may find my personal image resonates with you, or it may make no sense at all. My hope is that in hearing about my journey with understanding grief, you will see how models can be personalized to make them more powerful. I feel strongly that models of behavior and cognition are representations of reality, not reality itself. We have to understand models in our own terms and use them to inform, not constrict, our personal growth. Models are tools to help us understand complex systems and should never be assumed to be comprehensive nor universal.

Next time: Grief = Death: When dying is the only language we have for grief

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One thought on “Grief and Spiral Staircases

  1. Your personal image is beautiful and resonates strongly with me! Thank you for sharing it. I also found the words about your son and how he has experienced (and will continue to experience) his loss as he grows through different stages wise. My mother passed away when I was 18 months old, so I have dealt with new stages of feeling that mother-loss as I have reached different stages of my own development. Especially difficult was the year I passed the age she had been at the time of her death as it felt like uncharted territory, or a gift of time that I didn’t deserve because she didn’t get to have it.

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